Monday, March 26, 2007


"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient
to the point of death -
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
- Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

This is my favorite passage in all of Scripture, and it is absolutely loaded with Christological claims...

  • it presumes Jesus' pre-existence and "equality with God";
  • it affirms that Jesus became incarnate in human flesh;
  • it emphasizes Jesus' humility and obedience to God, even to the point of a gruesome death on the Cross;
  • it clarifies that, on the Cross, Jesus really died, there was no pretending, no "show";
  • it proclaims Jesus' subsequent exaltation and universal Lordship.
What a powerfully important passage!

Verse 7 has always intrigued me...particularly the phrase "emptied himself", which may have serious implications in Christology. The Greek root word used is "kenosis", which means, "to empty" or "to be emptied". While some translations render the phrase "made himself nothing" (NIV, ESV) or "made himself of no reputation" (KJV), I believe that these are attempts to interpret a difficult concept, that of the Son "emptying himself", rather than simply translations of the text.

It seems to me that in the Incarnation, the Son "emptied himself" of something, according to Philippians 2:7. The question is, "Of what did Jesus empty himself?"

I believe that Jesus emptied himself of the glory of divinity. If God were to appear to us in all of his glory, how could we survive? So, Jesus emptied himself of God's glory, while remaining fully God. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, in stanza 2 of his "Oration 37" speaks of it as a "...reduction and lessening of his glory".

Retaining the divine nature, being emptied of divine glory also meant that Jesus emptied himself of the "omni" qualities of God. Pre-Easter, Jesus, in my view, was not omniscient, was not omnipotent, and was certainly not omnipresent.

If he were omniscient, then why do we have these words in Mark 13:32, in which Jesus is speaking of the eschaton in the so-called "Marcan Apocalypse"...

"But about that day or hour no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father."

Additionally, why do we have the claims of Luke 2:40 and 2:52 that Jesus grew in wisdom? It seems to me that, like every human being, he was learning ...about God, about himself, and about his calling. That's one of the most human of qualities, and, if Jesus didn't need to learn and discover his calling, he may not have been fully human.

If he were omnipotent, then why do we have these words in Mark 6:5-6, during a visit to his hometown of Nazareth...

"...he could do no deed of power there,
except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
And he was amazed at their unbelief."

Faith seems to be required in some way in order for Jesus to perform a miracle. This suggests that Jesus was limited in some way, and not all powerful.

I suppose I don't need to make the case that Jesus emptied himself of omnipresence. For one to make the claim that Jesus was omnipresent during his earthly ministry is to not only demonstrate a misunderstanding of human nature, but to seriously question Incarnational doctrine, which clearly affirms that Jesus lived in a definite place and time as a human being.

If Jesus had not emptied himself of these divine attributes, then he could not have been fully human. Imagine the baby in the Bethlehem manger. Now, picture that same baby as knowing everything, as being absolutely all powerful. He'd simply be playing human...toying with Mary and Joseph. This beautiful image can become very frightening, if the "baby" in the manger isn't really a "baby" in any sense that we would recognize; he's really quite monstrous.

So, Jesus emptied himself of divine glory, which includes the "omni" attributes, in order to become fully human. But, he remained fully divine. How can this be?

Our God is a god of paradoxes. The first shall be last, the last first. The God who never changes changed by becoming incarnate in human flesh. God is a god of wrath and mercy.

The Incarnation is a holy mystery. We can know in part, but not entirely (at least not yet). We may not be able to fully understand how it all works, but we can know that God does understand it, and that his reasons for doing things the way he did come out of his deep, abiding love for us.

It is a touching sign of grace that God is self-limiting in his love. This is part of the beauty of Philippians 2:5-11, and why I am thankful that it appears in the lectionary each year on Palm/Passion Sunday. It provides an excellent means to discuss not only the horrific tragedies of Holy Week, but also to talk about the greatness of God's love, and what the ways in which God modeled this love, to prepare us for heaven.

I am reminded of Charles Wesley's wonderful words...

"He left his Father's throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam's helpless race.
'Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!"
- "And Can It Be that I Should Gain"
(The United Methodist Hymnal #363)


Randy Roda said...

Now I really feel like a heretic. I think you are of sound doctrine. Although it seems logical that Jesus set aside his omni-qualities, Incarnation remains a great mystery. How was Jesus'humanity intertwined with his divinity? What was emptied and what was still present? I don't want to go quite as far. Jesus was fully human, but also exhibited divine power to heal, to speak of his journey to the cross and to walk on water. Maybe he was still omnipotent but chose limit his power.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

I don't think that the "omni" qualities are essential for God to be God. I affirm them, of course, but the essential traits...and this is just my opinion...are goodness, love, justice, mercy, etc. What was still present in Jesus was the divine nature, as we affirm in our creeds and Articles...but that doesn't necessarily include the divine attributes, such as the "omni" stuff. Yes, Jesus (pre-Easter) still had power to heal, but he wasn't all powerful; he predicted the future but wasn't all knowing. We can do these things as well, through faith and by the power of the Spirit; Jesus said we could and would, even if we've largely forgotten how to do so (though Dayton would argue that Pentecostals & charismatics haven't forgotten completely!).

Your view that Jesus was still omnipotent but chose not to use that power is perfectly orthodox; my own view probably skirts the left edge of orthodoxy (but is still orthodox as it is completely compatible with our doctrinal standards as well as consensus creeds, like the Nicene Creed). I just can't make that work personally, as I have argued (it makes Jesus, in my view, not fully human...we do have limitations that I'd think he'd share if he were fully human...but that's just my view). And, while I'm not really a "process guy", I think my own Christology is very compatible with process theology, if that matters at all.

Now, what does "divine nature" mean? You'll have to ask someone a lot smarter than me.

Randy Roda said...

Now I really...really...really feel like a heretic. I think I am a docetist or something like that. The truth is that the only thing I really know about Jesus is that, for some reason, he loves me despite my absolute pathetic brokenness. You are probably right about "kenosis." Thank God he did that for us.

Brett Probert said...

As the caveman says on the latest Geico commercial..."what?"

Randy Roda said...

Sorry again Brett...the whole conversation is over my head. I just feel compelled to harass Keith.